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Five questions with B&O Railroad Museum head Courtney Wilson

Five questions with B&O Railroad Museum head Courtney Wilson
Baltimore, MD-- January 12, 2015--Courtney Wilson is executive director of the B & O Railroad Museum. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

It might deal in an industry's past, but the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore certainly has its eyes on the future.

From increasing its role in early-childhood education in Baltimore to forming new ties with railroad museums in other countries, the self-described "birthplace of American railroading" constantly seeks to remain relevant in new and exciting ways, said Courtney Wilson, an antiques expert and the museum's executive director.

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The crown jewel of the museum — the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Roundhouse, which dates to 1884 — is located on a 40-acre campus off West Pratt Street in Baltimore. It also has outposts in Mount Clare and Ellicott City.

The Smithsonian-affiliated museum sees about 250,000 visitors every year from all around the world. In September, it signed a deal with a railway museum in Saitama City, Japan, to collaborate on "international railway heritage projects," and it is looking to forge new relationships in other countries.

It also has taken a specific interest in helping Baltimore students succeed in science and math.

Wilson said the museum's impact on Baltimore and its local engagement will only increase in coming years, as organizers ramp up preparations for a major milestone in railroad history: the 200th anniversary of American railroading.

In the roundhouse on a recent morning, Wilson sat down to discuss where the museum is headed.

Can you remind us how the B&O Railroad Museum got started?

B&O was America's first railroad. They were always throughout the history of the company very cognizant of their own history. They saved a lot of important artifacts and locomotives through the years. The railroad opened this museum in 1953 as an arm of its public relations marketing department. B&O subsequently merged into C&O Railway and then the Chessie system railway, and ultimately CSX. It was CSX who spun it off as a private 501(c)3 nonprofit in 1990. So it's been a private museum since.

As a private organization now, how do you maintain operations, bring in funding and get people through the door?

It's interesting. This museum is sustained mostly by private money, corporate money, foundation money, individual giving. Very, very little public funds are brought through the door. There are a couple of grants for specific projects we get but no operating money from the state or city or federal government. It's a challenge.

We have a lot of earned income here from admissions, gift shop sales, things like that, but a lot of money has to be raised to preserve this, to make our education programs vibrant and relevant, and so it's a lot of hard work. We do a lot with social media. We certainly have a vibrant following, an international following, really — international, national, local and regional. We do a lot of advertising.

Can you talk about some of your biggest challenges in recent years, and also what you have your sights set on in the future?

I think our biggest challenge is staying relevant. Technology and the way kids quickly grow out of their childhood and into adulthood today means that we have to constantly stay ahead of the curve in terms of how we educate, how we entertain, what services we provide for visitors from all over the world here. So that's constantly a challenge: looking at what's the next thing around the curve that we can adopt and put out there.

Looking toward the future, we actually have our sights already set on the year 2027, which will be the 200th anniversary of railroading in the United States. So we actually have started forming committees and looking way, way down the tracks at what that's going to look like. We would like to be the sort of cornerstone of a national celebration, and certainly we are looking at our own facilities and collections to see how that might be enhanced in anticipation of that celebration.

How does your history and place here in Baltimore translate into partnerships with the city and local schools, and how do you use those partnerships to further the mission of the museum?

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The museum has a very, very large footprint in the city, not only physically but I think we have impact on, certainly, economic development, tourism — especially since many, many of our visitors come from out of town and out of the country.

We have a big impact on the school system, we work closely with them, we develop curriculum for them and we're heavily involved in STEM education: science, technology, engineering and math. But most importantly, in recent years we've seen the development of an early-childhood education program here that is almost second to none in the city. The museum-based early-learners program co-designed by the Smithsonian really, really has attracted a lot of attention.

Do you incorporate your antique collecting into vacationing or where you travel?

My wife and I love to travel, and no matter where I am, be it Europe or a trip to the Far East, my eye is always looking for antiquity. It really is — whether you're on tour and looking at great architecture from medieval times or looking at furnishings. My wife will tell you that no antiques shop door goes undarkened when I'm around.

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Courtney Wilson

Title: Executive director, B&O Railroad Museum

Age: 61

Residence: Brooklandville

Birthplace: Green Spring Valley

Education: Bachelor's degree in American history from Western Maryland College; master's degree in American history from Morgan State University

Family: Wife, Leslie

Hobbies: Collecting antiques

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